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The Big Question: Have We Left Something Important Behind?

Workers remove prosthetic limbs from a replica of the Venus de Milo at the Louvre-Rivoli metro station in Paris. Credit Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Workers remove prosthetic limbs from a replica of the Venus de Milo at the Louvre-Rivoli metro station in Paris. Credit Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As modern life moves forward, has our society left something important behind? Can it, or should it, be retrieved? We asked the thinkers, artists and opinion leaders below for their thoughts.

Society has forgotten an idea that had accompanied humanity from time immemorial: utopia. The notion that there is a new and better world to strive for and dream about has largely disappeared from our all too skeptical, one might even say cynical, society.

There are plenty of dystopias to give us nightmares, but a world without a utopia may be a world not worth living in; utopia is to our notion of history as the speed of light is to the cosmos. It forms the horizon of possibilities necessary for orientation to the world. Without an imaginative search for a better society we are bound to flounder in confused expediency.

Because the ideologies of the past century have been largely discredited as false utopias, we are bereft of the notion of a better future. Whether the idea of a utopia ever returns will depend on our spirit, our faith in what is to come. Yet who are we to make demands of the spirit, which will wander as it will?

Daniel Libeskind is a Polish-American architect, artist, professor and set designer.

Remember remembering? Remember how we use to learn things by heart? Whole poems we could recite, the phone numbers of all our friends and our relatives besides? Remember how we used to have to remember directions to a place, including interesting detours we could take that had started out as a mistake? We had to remember what we needed, because we couldn’t just call home if we forgot. Remember when we had to remember what people looked like without looking them up, when we couldn’t consign the most important things in life to someone else’s hard drive?

Remember how we committed the important things to memory, where they were locked up for life? Everything inside us, without strings attached? Remember, oh, remember, the small, shy animal that would come out of the thicket of thinking when we sat quietly by, without a thing to do in this world, nothing pinging or vibrating or alerting us otherwise? And we would muse and mull over things. Remember musing?

Without remembering, how will our past speak to our future? How will we even remember if we have left something important behind, and if so, where to go to find it?

Julia Alvarez is the author of poetry collections, novels and books for young readers. Her most recent books are “Where Do They Go?”, “A Wedding in Haiti” and “The Woman I Kept to Myself”.

He always peeled his apples slowly, deliberately, pausing to adjust the volume on his transistor radio as we sat around the kitchen table. “This is the six o’clock news …” the presenter would say, and my grandfather would smile. My grandmother, busily cooking behind us, would inevitably sit down and pour herself a drink from a Johnnie Walker whiskey bottle, which, since prohibition was declared in Pakistan years before, held only water.

Then the stories would begin, almost invariably with my grandfather describing the sweet mangoes he used to steal from his neighbor’s trees. My grandmother would tell of the resistance movement she had joined before the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Two grandchildren, sitting transfixed, biting into their slices of apple.

Those afternoons at the kitchen table, and the stories we listened to, shaped the way we saw the world. We had the luxury of time and the desire to share it with each other. Today, my daughters have gadgets, and their calendars are full of activities. There is no time for sliced apples or stories. There is very little time to be a child.

Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is a Pakistani journalist, filmmaker and activist. She has won two Academy Awards and three Emmy Awards.

In the next three decades natural and artificial intelligence will become one; we will live indefinitely, and become a billion times more intelligent. In this era of accelerating technologies, poverty, disease, resource scarcity, illiteracy and violence are declining. In the past 20 years global poverty has decreased by more than 50 percent. In the past 200 years we have doubled our life expectancy. These are but two examples of the remarkable advancements we have made as modern life moves forward, with comparable progress in extending education, providing sanitation and instilling democracy worldwide.

At the core of these trends lies the steady and constant doubling of the price-performance ratio and capacity of information technologies — technologies that are a thousand times more powerful than they were years ago and will be a million times more powerful 20 years from now. As medicine, agriculture, energy and manufacturing become forms of information technology, we will see radical transformation in all aspects of our lives, including our health, food, clothing, housing and work. The future is better than you think. So, rather than look back at what society may have left behind, I look forward to the future in which our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress and longevity.

Ray Kurzweil is an American author, computer scientist, inventor and futurist.

We have largely quit intentionally cultivating democratic knowledge — the knowledge, skills and capacities that civic actors need to sustain healthy democracies.

According to the Education Commission of the States, in the mid-20th century, American high school graduates took three separate courses in democracy, civics and government, and “civics was woven throughout the K-12 curriculum”. Now civic education typically consists of only a single-semester course in government or civics in the 40 states where such a requirement exists.

The results of our disinvestment in civic education appear stark. According to political scientists Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, only about 30 percent of millennials consider it “essential” to live in a democracy, while 72 percent of those born before World War II do. We can, and should, reverse this.

Last June, my home state, Massachusetts, passed new state educational standards, introducing a yearlong civics course for eighth-graders and increasing the focus on civics elsewhere in the curriculum. We can rebuild civic education state by state. Of course, civic education without improvements in how our political institutions function won’t solve the problem, but without a citizenry who knows how to operate democratic institutions, and why we might want them, we won’t be able to rescue our democracy.

Danielle Allen is a classicist and political scientist. She is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A”.

Sophistication used to be valued, both as a way of looking at the world and a means of living in it. Now, as our affairs become dizzyingly complex and depressingly straightforward, it is getting lost. It’s odd and it’s troubling. We are losing our grasp of the general concept that things are complicated, and that deep knowledge — civic, cultural, political — is a perfect old tool for the challenges of a new world.

Just within the Western tradition, Machiavelli, Castiglione, Bacon, Hobbes, Cavendish, Montesquieu, Wollstonecraft and, yes, Ben Franklin, not to mention most of the great novelists and scientists, all called for it. So did the great composers and painters.

And then we’ve lost our social sophistication, from elegance and manners to great conversation and the very essential need for high irony. These things were once central to politics too. One didn’t need to be rich to have these qualities. I had a socially sophisticated barber when I was a kid.

Greta Garbo and Cary Grant made sophistication a democratic trait; it was all about nuance and seeing the many shades of our world. Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac knew it, too. Frederick Douglass saw that to make the case for freedom, he would have to master language in all of its nuances. This is a paradox and a challenge in the age of artificial intelligence and Twitter. If we cannot rediscover humane sophistication — a learned and elegant folly — we will lack the fine analytical blade of deep understanding.

Jacob Soll is a professor of philosophy, history and accounting at the University of Southern California.

From my very first visit, I fell madly in love with the Mediterranean.

Every five years or so, when my family could afford it, we would trek across the hemisphere, leaving behind the dry, icy Johannesburg winter to visit my grandparents in their village on a little island in Greece.

The sea was a realm of magic, an otherworldly kingdom where the octopuses danced in slow motion and pink coral and sea urchins lined the rocks like strange little houses in an underwater village. Years have passed since my first visits, and though the hills are still lit up by the light of the Milky Way and the thick hum of cicadas fills the air, my underwater kingdom has been raided, and the Mediterranean lies almost barren.

Now in the summer months, tourists like me arrive in big ferries, while yachts fill the bay and slick boats that look like spaceships shine their bright underwater spotlights into the empty sea below. Staring into these waters that my ancestors once explored, I hope, with all the heart of a little girl, that there is a secret, hidden corner where the creatures of my childhood are hiding, waiting it out until we turn off the lights.

Alexia Webster is a documentary photographer and visual artist from South Africa.

From the way I formulate recipes to how I created the space that became my bakery cafe in East London, I look to the past while continuously moving forward. I took the idea of the quaint European cake shop and modernized the experience, but my work is a synthesis of what is now and of the work of those who came before me.

We are constantly building on the past, polishing it, re-creating it. Recipes are perfect examples of this. Passed down from generation to generation, they are annotated by each baker who uses them.

When I designed the wedding cake for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last spring, we left behind the tradition of a fruit cake, opting instead for lemon and elderflower, flavors that embody the ethos of this moment: seasonality and sustainability. The royal family’s beautifully crafted gilt cake stands had been used countless times over many years, developing a burnished quality that I consider to be more beautiful than something new and perfect. And the many hands that have held them make them intrinsically more beautiful.

I’d like to think our society appreciates this nuance. Something old. Something new.

Claire Ptak is a baker and pastry chef. She owns Violet Cakes in London and is the author of “The Violet Bakery Cookbook”.

In general I like to think that we gain something for everything we lose.

On the New York City subway yesterday I counted 30 people in the car, and all but one were staring at their devices. Some were also plugged into their headphones. I suddenly saw the same scene as though looking back on it from the future; the handheld devices looked old-fashioned and clumsy, as if everyone were carrying an oxygen tank. I’m sure these devices will become surgically implanted some day. It’s just a matter of time.

I admit that I’m addicted, like millions of others. I feel naked without my device. I feel desperate when it’s misplaced. I confess: I like having an extension for my brain when I can’t remember a fact. Would I want that device implanted? I don’t think so.

What we have gained in access to information, we have lost in terms of our time. Every email, every text, every call expects an instant response. Social media and round-the-clock news delivery demand our constant attention. One way I have found to get some time back is simply by slowing things down through meditation. Taking a few moments for myself. Unplugging from the hive.

Richard McGuire is an American artist, musician and author. His new book is “Richard McGuire Art for the Street 1978-82”.

Until fairly recently, it was taken for granted that the important buildings in our cities should be built to last a long time. Unlike consumer goods, architecture was for the long haul. That meant durable materials, of course, but it also meant durable ideas; both were required to withstand the test of time.

No more. Globalization, branding and the celebrity architect phenomenon have changed all that. Buildings have become more like blockbuster movies; instead of the long haul, they celebrate the immediate, the here and now and up-to-the-minute.

It’s all very exciting, for today. But what about tomorrow? Once the novelty wears off, what’s left? Will old buildings be like Hula Hoops and pet rocks; yesterday’s fads? Will they simply be discarded, like old cell phones? Will the only alternatives available to an older building be modernization — “freshening up”, in developer’s parlance — or demolition? If architecture continues down this road, it will sacrifice one of its most precious functions: providing a living connection to the past, to people who were like us, and yet not like us.

Witold Rybczynski is a Canadian-American architect, professor and writer. He is the Martin and Margy Meyerson Professor Emeritus of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania.

When I attended Brooklyn College in the early 1970s, tuition was free. Since I lived at home, my only expenses were books, lunch money and the bus fare to and from school. I spent my time studying art and literature with the feeling that I was embarking on a lifetime endeavor of the utmost importance.

Unlike the local delicatessen, where I ate my lunch every day, the college didn’t hand me a bill after my classes, or after the hours that I spent in the college library. On winter evenings, it felt like the light emanating from the classroom windows was a result of the intellectual activity going on within. As with the street lamps that lit my way back home, that energy was provided by the taxpayer, for the safety of the citizens of Brooklyn.

In recent years I’ve had the opportunity to teach at private colleges in the United States and European schools run by the state. The students who aren’t paying customers approach their work with a serenity that’s not possible with the sound of a tuition meter running in the background.

In an economy where the very idea of needing a “job” to be deserving of a guaranteed basic income is questioned, it’s obvious that interested citizens should again be invited to study, and teach, in tuition-free universities supported by the state.

Ben Katchor is an American cartoonist and illustrator best known for his critically acclaimed comic strip “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer”.

The words I grew up hearing are still constantly being told to girls around the world: Sports are not for you.

When they reach adolescence, the pressure on young women to conform to a certain kind of femininity makes it even harder for them to occupy public spaces, develop their sense of autonomy and play.

When a girl is not allowed to practice a sport, she is denied a precious tool to develop skills transferable to several other areas of her life: confidence, leadership, discipline, resilience, team spirit and respect for diversity.

I usually say to girls: Believe in yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will. However, it is also true that with the right investments by sports institutions, in both the public and private sectors, the path for girls to achieve their full potential won’t be as difficult as it was for me.

We need more women in decision-making positions in sports governing bodies, better policies for women athletes and more opportunities for girls to play sports, wherever they are in the world.

We cannot say humanity has truly moved forward until we level the playing field for women and girls, in every area where they have the potential to excel.

Marta Vieira da Silva plays for the Orlando Pride and the Brazilian Women’s National Soccer Team. She was named FIFA World Player of the Year six times, and is a United Nations goodwill ambassador for women and girls in sport.

Within a decade of the telephone’s invention, someone whose name is lost to history made the first obscene phone call. The new technology, miraculously enabling conversation unlimited by physical proximity, engendered behavior that was unhampered by social norms, which had always prevented most people from saying such nasty things face to face.

A few years later, the first telephone booths appeared. These boxes further dislocated the devices, acoustically and visually, allowing each user to inhabit an imaginary space shared only with the person at the other end of the line. But this space was really nowhere, neither here nor there, and it amplified the antisocial nature of the telephone call. Weird things happen in phone booths; rules don’t apply. Clark Kent transformed himself into Superman. Who knows what Scott Pruitt might have gotten up to?

Today, in choosing to be on our phones all the time, everyplace, we have imprisoned ourselves within virtual phone booths that perpetually disconnect us from our surroundings. No longer present in the place where we actually are, we become social zombies, faces lit gruesomely from below by the bluish light of our screens. We behave in ways that fail to acknowledge the people around us. Too many behave obscenely.

Let’s reclaim our context and reconnect to our surroundings, in ways that elicit the better angels of our nature. Superman was only able to fight for truth and justice by emerging from his booth and engaging with the city.

Be a superhero. Turn off your phone, look up at the people around you, and smile.

Emily Thompson, a professor of history at Princeton, gets by just fine without a smartphone.

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